Is any part of Scripture more popular or misquoted than these words from Matthew 7:1? They have been adopted as the charter for a permissive, non-judgemental approach to life, an ‘anything goes’ mentality which never forms, let alone expresses, an unfavourable opinion about anyone or anything.
People who otherwise have little time for Jesus Christ are very ready to quote the phrase – to silence those unfashionable enough to use such terms as ‘wrong’ or ‘sinful’. ‘Judge not’ is the club which beats down ethical standards into impotent confusion.
Even Christians are often intimidated into thinking that the Lord is here prohibiting us from ever passing moral verdicts. There can be few cases of church discipline during which these words are not heard, by way of protest from someone in the flock.
Judgement – good and bad
A moment’s thought should show us that such an interpretation is absurd. Christ himself, in this very passage, requires us to make judgements. ‘Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs … Beware of false prophets … You will recognise them by their fruits’ (Matthew.7:6, 15, 16).
He commands us to ‘judge with right judgement’ (John 7:24) and Paul expects church members to judge ‘those inside the church’ (1 Corinthians 5:12). People today are adrift without a compass on the seas of non-judgementalism.
We need more real judging in our law-courts, more moral fibre in government, much more critical discernment among the people of God. Our Lord is certainly not urging us to be gullible or naïve.
What then does he mean? He is warning us about a wrong kind of judging – a harsh, condemning spirit which incurs God’s anger. It is a particular temptation to those who really care about right and wrong, who have high ethical standards and take the call to holiness seriously.
There is so much around us worthy of condemnation. Some things should be condemned, for the sake of our fellow-creatures and for God’s glory. But we must beware of judging in ways which Christ forbids.
We can identify wrong judgement by the following marks. We should conclude that Christ’s warning applies to our judging:
When it is habitual. The Lord is speaking here about a continuous activity: ‘Do not keep on, do not make a habit of judging’. Do you more often criticise than commend? Do people expect you to have something negative to say? Are they afraid of your tongue? Are you a chronic fault-finder?
When it is unnecessary. How often we pronounce on matters which are none of our business! If you have not been asked, why offer an unfavourable opinion? ‘Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs’ (1 Thessalonians 4:11).
When it is based on incomplete knowledge – which our judgements usually are. Am I in a hurry to jump in with a criticism? Do I know all the facts? ‘If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame’ (Proverbs 18:13).
When it is presumptuous. We may see what people do, but we have little or no idea about why they do it. So we dare not impute motives, though we often do. ‘I the Lord search the heart’ (Jeremiah 17:10).
When it is merciless. Do we make allowances; give someone the benefit of the doubt; try to put the best construction on things? Do we believe in the maxim ‘innocent, till proved guilty’?
When it is joyful. Love ‘does not rejoice at wrongdoing’ (1 Corinthians 13:6). That secret spasm of pleasure we feel, while recounting with a piously doleful expression someone’s fall into sin, comes straight from the pit of hell.
When it is trivial. ‘Let no one pass judgement on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath’ (Colossians 2:16). How many church quarrels are about minor or doubtful matters!
When it is inconsistent. ‘Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges … because you, the judge, practise the very same things’ (Romans 2:1). Pots and kettles?
When it is destructive. Attacking the person (‘You fool!’, Matthew 5:22); destroying self-esteem; daring to pronounce a final verdict on a human being. ‘God himself is judge’ (Psalm 50:6).
Judgementalism is self-destructive. It can, of course, damage those against whom it is directed – sometimes severely and lastingly. Masquerading as concern or superior spirituality, this cruel spirit seeps like a corroding acid into many church fellowships, disfiguring and scarring.
But it harms also the person doing the judging. Condemning others may be an enjoyable activity for sinners, offering what John Stott calls ‘the pleasure of self-righteousness without the pain of penitence’. But it insulates us from any perceived need to change.
As long as we can find a speck in our brother’s eye, we don’t need to worry about the log in our own. The persistent critic, therefore, has a vested interest in fault-finding. If deprived of one accusation, he or she will immediately look for another.
And such a self-protective strategy condemns its victims to the wretched prison of their own unholy behaviour patterns.
Yet there is an even more serious implication: ‘Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgement you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you’.
Would you or I like to be judged by our own standards? Could you endure to hear your own judgements replayed and be measured by them?
To condemn is to deny mercy. Those who habitually condemn others are making a terrible statement about themselves – they do not know what mercy is.
Is it the burden of inner guilt which makes them so judgemental? ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy’.